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Way of Life Slipping Away Along Chesapeake's Edge

Watermen along the Chesapeake Bay face difficult times -- as dwindling crab and oyster populations leave many without enough to make a decent living, and forcing changes within the communities that reside along the bay.

"Oh, Lord," Abbott said at last. They both began to cry.

Then, Abbott pulled the door shut. Carefully, as if the shanty didn't have a hole in the roof and a significant lean.

"I'm going to find a way to just keep this place up," she said. "Because he doesn't deserve it."

Deal Island is a legendary place. Joshua Thomas, the "parson of the islands," who brought fervent Christianity to the region in the early 1800s, is buried there. The island, about 2 1/2 hours south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, was once home to a large fleet of skipjacks, the Chesapeake's iconic oyster-dredging sailboats.

The oysters died off, and the crabs began to follow, and soon a waterman's living wasn't enough. People went "up the road" to work on tugboats, in trucks, at the state prison. Deal Island's population dropped from 1,237 in 1930 to 578 in 2000. Only about 20 percent of households include children.

"I'm 60. Danny's 58. We're the young ones," said Grant Corbin, a waterman, pointing to another in the fellowship hall of St. John's United Methodist Church the same day that Abbott visited the crab shanty nearby.

The men were waiting for the lunch that followed the church's homecoming service, which brought 200 people to the sanctuary instead of the usual 20.

In the hall, it smelled like batter and hot oil. The women were making soft-shell crabs. That process starts with snipping eyestalks, apron, gills, gills. Then, batter and cook until the gooey "mustard" firms up, reaching a consistency that doesn't remind you it's guts.

Abbott, 60, with blond ringlets of hair and emotions very near the surface, was sitting a table in the hall, tearing up over the two soft-shells on her plate. She was talking about her husband Charles Abbott, voted most likely to succeed in the Deal Island High School class of 1962.

They had twins when she was 15 and another child later. But she found a good job in the finance office at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. He made enough money on the water -- crabbing in summer, oystering in winter -- to buy all three kids a Trans Am when they turned 16.

But then, in the '70s and '80s, the bay turned for the worse. Their story turned into the Book of Job.

First, the oyster harvest crashed. They had to sell his family's skipjack, the Thomas Clyde, in 1991. Sold it to a waterman up the bay in Tilghman Island, far away so they wouldn't have to see it again. As the boat motored away, a seagull that the Abbotts used to feed followed it out to the bay. "It was like a funeral for my husband," she said.

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